Congress has fled Washington for a five-week summer recess, but don’t fret about all of the serious problems left unresolved in their absence. It won’t make any difference. Under Speaker John Boehner, members of the 113th Congress accomplish as much out of town as in town. Which is absolutely nothing.
Take their end-of-session Keystone Kops routine on immigration. Faced with a serious humanitarian crisis at the border – as many as 52,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who must, by law, be housed and cared for in the United States until they can be scheduled for a deportation hearing – Congress complained about it, debated it, dithered on it and then left town without doing anything.
But wait. The comedy doesn’t end there. Before heading out of Dodge, several Republicans actually suggested that, since Congress had failed to act, it was now up to President Obama to solve the crisis by executive order. And remember, these are the same House Republicans who voted, just two days earlier, to sue the president for issuing too many executive orders!
The irony was not lost on President Obama, who joked to reporters on Aug. 1: “House Republicans suggested that since they don’t expect to actually pass a bill that I can sign, that I actually should go ahead and act on my own to solve the problem. Keep in mind that just a few days earlier, they voted to sue me for acting on my own.” Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
The threat of a lawsuit has not discouraged President Obama from acting on his own. He seems more determined than ever to fill the vacuum left by congressional inaction. Yes, he’d rather work with Congress, he assured an Aug. 6 news conference, but where Congress refuses to act, he won’t hold back: “What I am consistently going to do is, wherever I have the legal authorities to make progress on behalf of middle-class Americans and folks working to get into the middle class … I’m going to seize those opportunities.”
It’s no surprise the president is stepping up his use of executive orders. He signaled as much in his 2014 State of the Union address, vowing to make good use of his “phone and pen.” But now he has three good reasons for doing so. First, because that’s what the American people want. While Obama’s approval rating in the latest CBS News poll is only 41 percent, Congress rates much lower, at 15 percent. Americans don’t want America to stand still because of a dysfunctional Congress.
Obama also knows his history. No matter what John Boehner claims, Obama lags far behind other presidents in his use of executive authority. According to the American Presidency Project, he’s signed only 184 executive orders so far, compared to 291 for George W. Bush and 364 for Bill Clinton. FDR holds the record, with 3,728. Nor has Obama employed executive orders for such weighty matters as his predecessors. By executive action only, FDR ordered creation of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II and established the WPA; Harry Truman integrated the military and nationalized steel mills; George W. Bush authorized the use of torture. By comparison, Obama’s actions to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors and delay the health-care mandate for employers seem almost timid.
Finally, Obama must act because Congress won’t. Problems don’t go away just because Congress is gridlocked. They only fester and get worse. So any president has an obligation to act, and there are two areas where Obama’s planning to do so. First is immigration. Only Congress can pass necessary comprehensive immigration reform. But the president’s expected to expand the 2012 Dream Act, allowing people under 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16 to escape deportation, while also easing deportation on undocumented immigrants who don’t have a criminal history.
Obama’s also indicated he’s preparing an executive order to curtail a practice known as “inversion,” whereby big U.S. firms merge with smaller foreign firms in order to escape American taxes – thereby, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, saving taxpayers $20 billion over the next decade.
Those and other executive actions are in the works. They may seem bold, but Obama has no choice. Serious problems demand bold action. And, besides, since House Republicans are going to sue Obama anyway, he might as well give them something to sue about!